Thirty-three years ago Rich and I inconvenienced our nearest and dearest by getting married two days after Christmas, requiring them to make all sorts of awkward travel arrangements just when everyone really wanted to be home by the fire playing with their new toys. Ever since then, our anniversary has been squeezed into a social calendar revolving around Yuletide celebrations, New Year’s Eve, and Spain's grand finale on January 6: Three Kings Day, which in Seville involves a spectacular parade as a prelude to exchanging gifts.
In the midst of so much revelry, our anniversary celebrations tend to be modest. Researching traditional gifts, I discovered the US and UK don’t even list anything for the 33rd anniversary; apparently so few hit that benchmark nobody could be bothered. Spain, Italy, and Germany observe the occasion with tin, which didn’t help. A can of tuna? A couple of Budweisers? A tin cup? One website suggested a spiritual-themed gift. Why? “33 is an important religious number; it’s the numerical equivalent of AMEN, i.e., 1+13+5+14=33; it’s the age of Christ and also the number of miracles that he performed and it’s also the numerical representation of the star of David.” Sorry, still not inspired. A tin crucifix somehow didn't strike the right note.
Luckily Rich had a better idea: a train trip to Valencia on Spain’s east coast. He found a trendy yet cozy hotel called Maria Berger, which on arrival we learned had just opened the day before. As you can imagine, everything was sparkling clean and I could probably have eaten off of any surface in the room, including the TV remote control (although I did not put this to the test). When Rich mentioned we were celebrating our anniversary, the desk clerk immediately sent a bottle of cava to our room. “I could get used to this,” I said.
As it happened, Valencia’s Fine Arts Museum was having an exhibition of one of my favorite painters, Joaquín Sorolla. A hundred and twenty years ago he was breaking all the rules by painting everyday subjects in this fluid, colorful style:
That one wasn’t in the exhibition, but lots of wonderful works were, and I was ambling around admiring Sarolla’s brushwork when this one stopped me in my tracks.
The painting isn’t all that remarkable, but the subject was the stuff of family legend.
When I was a teenager, my Aunt Beverly stunned everyone by packing up her family and moving to Valencia, Spain. Her letters home were eagerly anticipated and read aloud; everything, including cooking a holiday dinner, became an epic drama. For instance, when she wanted to serve a roast turkey, Aunt Beverly consulted the girls from the village who helped her around the house. They said they knew where to get one and returned the next day — with a living bird. My aunt, whose softhearted attitude to animals made St. Francis of Assisi look like Cruella de Vil, instantly bonded with the turkey and refused to consider cooking and eating her new pal.
An uproar naturally ensued. The family demanded their dinner. Aunt Beverly stood firm. Eventually, as it was five forceful personalities to one, she gave in — but she refused to participate directly. Standing outside the kitchen door, she called out instructions for stuffing and roasting the creature, all the while weeping for its fate. I’m not sure, but that may have been the year she became a vegetarian for life. The story took its place in our family lore, and I suspect the villagers are still telling the tale of the crazy American who didn’t want to eat a turkey because it was her amigo.
Seeing Aunt Beverly’s legendary Spanish turkey in a Sarolla painting wasn’t the only astonishing discovery of the trip. Although I had visited Valencia twice in the past, somehow it had escaped my notice that its cathedral housed the Holy Grail — yes, the actual cup used during the Last Supper.
Some naysayers question the authenticity of Valencia's Grail, pointing to the 200 other claimants to the title scattered across the globe. But this one has better credentials than most, being very old and very simple, made of carved agate polished with myrrh —a carpenter’s cup. Of course, no records exists of its early years; all we really know is that it was taken from the Holy Land, passed on to the Pope in Rome, and later given to Spanish royalty for safekeeping in turbulent times.
Is this the real deal? Every Catholic church contains holy relics, sacred remnants of saints’ bodies or personal possessions, which the faithful believe can work miracles. In medieval times high-profile relics were sold for fabulous sums, and not surprisingly, many have now turned out to be very dubious indeed.
I’m no expert, but having seen the right hand of John the Baptist in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, I had to wonder how his right hand could also be on display in the Serbian Orthodox Cetinje Monastery in Montenegro and the Romanian Monastery of the Forerunner. In other news, John the Baptist's six heads are displayed in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, San Silvestro in Capite in Rome, the Residenz Museum in Munich, Amiens Cathedral in France, Antioch, Turkey, and in a parish church in Tenterden, Kent. How many skulls and right hands can one man have?
Amiens Cathedral displays the actual skull of John the Baptist — or does it? In the famous Bible story, Herod's stepdaughter demanded John's head on a platter. But we know this isn't the actual platter because that's in Genoa's cathedral — or maybe not. Thanks to Wikicommons' Wi1234 for this picture.
No one will ever be able to prove the cup in Valencia is — or isn’t — the genuine Holy Grail. But the sight of such a revered object makes even the most time-pressed tourist slow down and fall into respectful silence, while confirmed skeptics like myself pause to consider the nature of truth. In the end, I’m not sure how much its authenticity really matters. For the faithful of Valencia, possession of this treasure is a miracle in itself, and to be in its presence is to be touched by glory.
Growing up Catholic, I accepted saints and relics and miracles as part of everyday life. And while time, experience, and John the Baptist's six heads have made me question everything I was told as a child, I understand that the universe is entirely too big and complicated for me to define the limits of its possibilities. Sometimes, as the nuns used to tell us, you just have to live with the mystery.
One thing I do know for certain: the excursion to Valencia was a wonderful way to celebrate our 33rd anniversary. Perhaps that website’s suggestion of a spiritual-themed gift wasn’t so far off the mark after all. Our time in Valencia made me laugh, and think, and contemplate the nature of reality. And I think we can all agree, that’s a lot better gift than a can of tuna or a tin cup.
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1/14/2020 07:37:50 pm
I enjoyed your article. We were in Valencia in October and loved it. We had forgotten about seeing the Holy Grail until your article jogged our memory. The cathedral was beautiful. as we roamed around we asked someone "what is that long line for?" To see the Holy Grail! Of course we got right into the line!
1/15/2020 11:54:59 am
Valencia is a terrific city, and still somewhat overlooked, as is the Holy Grail itself. Visiting in January, when there were fewer tourists, I was lucky enough not to encounter any lines. In fact, I had to wander around a while even to find the right chapel. But as you pointed out, Linda, the cathedral is beautiful and well worth a wander.
1/14/2020 07:58:19 pm
What a fun visit to another city for your anniversary. Loved the paintings by Sarolla and your turkey story. It so much fits the painting! How did you like a Spanish city with fewer tourists? Our son and his wife visited Cartagena over Christmas and liked it a lot. The tourist sites don't push the east side of Spain, so I'm thinking this is a less commercialized and more typical city.
1/15/2020 11:57:44 am
You're so right, Phyllis, that the east of Spain is less overrun with tourists; I think they all flock to Barcelona these days, leaving the rest a bit quieter and more its old self. I actually hesitated to write this piece as I'd hate to change that!
1/14/2020 10:02:52 pm
Karen: We marvelled at your ability to produce in a single post both a helpful travel guide and an understandable discussion about religious relics. Congratulations to you and Rich on the start of your 34th year together!
1/15/2020 12:05:15 pm
Thanks for your kind words, Ken! Our 34th year; that has a nice ring to it. I looked it up on the anniversary gift website; the US doesn't have a traditional gift, but in Spain it's a poppy. Hmmm, wonder what Rich will do about that? A visit to an opium den?
1/15/2020 12:01:30 am
“Sewing the Sail” is so very lovely. And absolutely that must be your aunt”s turkey!
1/15/2020 12:09:29 pm
Not to worry, Faye; nowadays only 71% of Spanish are Catholic and only around 3% of those attend church regularly. Being Catholic helps me understand some of the old customs and traditions, but it's certainly not essential for fitting in here.
1/15/2020 01:32:34 am
Great getaway, great story. . .and it sounds like a great celebration of a life well-lived together. Here's to more years, more travel and even more happiness! xxx
1/15/2020 12:09:57 pm
Thanks, Jackie; from your lips to God's ear!
1/15/2020 02:58:43 pm
2/6/2020 10:16:06 am
Gracias, Brian! So good to hear from you. And may 2020 be filled with all good things for you as well.
2/4/2020 07:25:06 pm
I found it interesting that many experts think Valencia is the most likely location of the "Holy Grail." However, when in Lalibela Ethiopia, we were also told it was the location of the "Holy Grail" which was kept where only the priests had access; they would neither affirm or deny its presence. It reminded me of three different places I have been to who claimed to be the inspiration for the song "Hotel California", one a hotel in Orange County, a hotel in Todos Santos (Baja California Mexico), and a prison in Eastern LA County where I was conducting an evaluation, obviously which all could not be true.
2/6/2020 10:18:56 am
Everyone wants to claim their piece of glory; it's only human nature. You're so right, Dawn, that it's impossible for it all to be true, but it makes people feel special. And running across these multiples is a good reminder that we all need to hone our sense of skepticism and run these claims through the filter of our common sense.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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